Vol 1, No 22
22 November 1999
Chernobyl in Slow Motion - Part III
In our past two installments (part one and part two) we examined the mismanagement of radioactive waste produced in the Soviet Union and disposed of in dumps, underground and under water. To compound the Russian nuclear waste dilemma further, the Soviet Union was waste importer during the Cold War.
Going, going, gone
As part of a series of agreements to build nuclear power plants in Eastern Europe, nuclear fuel was provided to each country, then the spent fuel was returned to the Soviet Union for reprocessing or disposal. The VVER was the reactor of choice to export, since it did not produce weapons-grade plutonium in the fission process. Statistics in regards to quantities imported are unavailable to date. However, quantities were no doubt abundant and excessively dangerous. This importation of waste added to the already staggering burden of radioactive materials the Soviet Union had to deal with. As a result, shortly after the dissolution of the USSR, President Boris Yeltsin passed a resolution prohibiting the importation and disposal of nuclear wastes from abroad, as well as from other former Soviet republics.
For decades, scientists have been trying to find a permanent solution for the disposal of dangerous nuclear wastes. To date, no large scale environmentally sound methods of radioactive waste disposal have been put into practice in the former Soviet Union. One proposal, set forth by the United States, proposed solidifying liquid radioactive wastes into glass or ceramic blocks and storing them in deep, dry, man-made caverns. This method of waste disposal ensures that radioactivity does not seep into ground water or endanger the biosphere. A similar experimental method used by the Americans had previously been used in the Soviet Union on a much smaller scale. However, solidification was achieved by mixing the liquid radioactive wastes with concrete.
Ironically, the cavities where the wastes were to be contained were blown out by the use of an underground "peaceful nuclear explosion". One report has suggested that this approach was employed in the Soviet Union for the disposal of chemical wastes. Nevertheless, solidified blocks of nuclear waste remain highly radioactive. The solidification process does not necessarily guarantee that radiation will be completely neutralised.
The International Chetek Corporation, a Russian joint-stock venture with the Experimental Physics Scientific Research Institute at the Arzamas-16 nuclear arms factory has promoted a controversial method of eliminating nuclear wastes. Since 1991, the Chetek Corporation promoted underground nuclear explosions for the destruction of both chemical and nuclear weapons. In 1992, they were given exclusive rights to employ underground nuclear explosion technology for destroying and burying nuclear waste.
According to physicist V I Musinov of the Institute of Technical Sciences, he argues that peaceful underground nuclear explosions for the incineration and burial of nuclear wastes would prove to be beneficial. Musinov stated that explosive materials from dismantled nuclear weapons could be reused for underground nuclear charges, making the technology even less expensive. In light of the fact that the Commonwealth of Independent States has made commitments to international disarmament agreements requiring the dismantling of more than 10,000 nuclear warheads, this option seems quite plausible.
Peaceful underground nuclear explosions are seen as having the benefit of providing a quick and effective method of disposal in keeping with Russia's dual environmental and economic crises. Although potentially effective, the environmental repercussions could seriously outweigh any immediate benefits. The costs of drilling, hazards of transportation and potential risks to the environment alone counter potential gains. The threat of wide-scale radiation contamination, coupled with unknown long-term effects and continued secrecy of the subject make this method a contested one. In the past, the Soviets have used the rationale of "national security" to justify peaceful nuclear explosions. At present, it is possible that the Russians may now use the rationale of "economic necessity".
Up and atom
Another controversial method of radioactive waste disposal is the futuristic approach of launching wastes into outer space by removing them off the face of the earth permanently. Russian experts intend to submit their ideas on this technique to the United Nations even though this method is more hypothetical than practical. The Russian space waste solution include such ideas as launching nuclear waste beyond the solar system, sending nuclear waste directly into the sun and destroying the material with powerful laser beams while in high orbit around the earth. According to Russian estimates, the cost of sending one ton of waste into space would cost up to USD 250 million. Nevertheless, the technology is available. The Energiya Russian heavy booster, the most powerful of all booster rockets could transport up to 25 tons of radioactive material into high orbit. While the technology for such a concept presently exists, the dangers and costs involved are staggering.
Rocket technology is far from flawless by any means -accidents have been documented throughout the history of space travel. If a rocket laden down with several tons of radioactive waste were to explode in the earth's upper atmosphere, the results would be catastrophic. A similar incident occurred in April 1964, when the Russian nuclear powered spacecraft Transit 5BN-3 failed to achieve orbit and exploded 50 kilometres above the earth's surface. The subsequent release of its 17,000 curies of plutonium increased the global onus of plutonium isotopes by approximately four percent.
Another hazard of launching radioactive waste into space is the danger of collision with orbital debris. Approximately 7000 inactive satellites are currently in near-earth orbit, along with billions of smaller fragments, including paint chips from satellites and rockets, all travelling at an average speed of 10 kilometres per second. Debris travelling at that velocity could easily destroy a spacecraft. The destruction of the Soviet surveillance satellite Kosmos 954 in 1978 was believed to have been caused as a result of a debris collision in near orbit. Considering the fact that most of the former Soviet Union's radioactive waste dilemma stems from poor waste management, it seems more feasible to invest in technological improvements of waste facilities than spend billions of dollars on the ejection of a few tons of radioactive waste.
After the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986, a state of mind among the public set in known as "radiophobia" or "nuclear syndrome", in which an assumption was made that all health related problems were related to radiation. The accident at Chernobyl drew attention to the real dangers of nuclear power. Consequently, the emergence of ecological Glasnost brought to light information that was considered secret in the past. "Eco-Glasnost" as it came to be called, proved to be an effective vehicle to address radioactive waste mismanagement, as well as other environmental issues. It also brought about a heightened awareness of the environment and potential threats to public health. Citizens voiced accusations that Russia was being used as a nuclear waste dump.
Subsequently, the "nimby" (not in my back yard) phenomenon also swept the Soviet Union, resulting in the closure of a secret decade-old project facility that was to store and process radioactive wastes from nuclear power plants near Novosibirsk, it was to be the largest in the world. By October 1990, the city of Arkhangelsk was declared a "nuclear free zone"; furthermore, the importation of nuclear substances without the consent of the local government was banned outright. Mass protests were held against the construction of all types of nuclear facilities around the Soviet Union, forcing the authorities to cancel or freeze the operation of more than a dozen such plants.
The collapse of the USSR brought new challenges to the nuclear industry and military industrial complex across the former Soviet landscape. The flagrant dumping practices of the past are simply no longer acceptable in today's "New World Order". The CIS cannot continue on its present path of ecological self-destruction -it must ultimately root out the sources of radioactive wastes and prevent further environmental degradation.
Funding and expertise from the West are desperately needed to aid this critical situation. The nuclear arsenal of the CIS will continue to be a problem even after the silos are filled with concrete and the warheads are put in storage. Radioactive materials have escaped from these facilities in the past. Minimising the damage from the disassembly of thousands of nuclear weapons can only be achieved through meticulous, costly measures -no corners can be cut in the process.
Radioactive waste mismanagement in the former Soviet Union has been a dilemma that only recently is being addressed in a serious manner. The results from decades of inadequate nuclear waste disposal have made a real impact on the health and well being on the population of the Commonwealth of Independent States and beyond. Radioactivity's invisibility and tenacity has made it one of the most feared and misunderstood phenomena of the 20th century. It will now be up to the Russian leadership to increase knowledge and awareness of nuclear risks as well as shed light on this dark and catastrophic inheritance passed on by the Soviet Union.
Peter Szyszlo, 30 October 1999
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